In the Dock: Major Tech Firms in UK Face Legal Crackdown Over Extremist Content

​An independent ethics watchdog, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, set up by UK prime minister Theresa May will report on December 13 the need for legislation to shift the liability for illegal content on to social media companies. 

It would effectively recast these firms as publishers meaning they would be liable for any material posted on their sites deemed unsuitable.

​In an interview with Sputnik, Tony Jaffa, a partner at Foot Anstey, one of the UK’s top 100 law firms, says such a move could effectively pave the way for tech firms to face civil or criminal action in the future.

“If the government accepts the recommendation and legislates accordingly, social media companies will end up being treated like conventional publishers under UK law.  Accordingly, they will assume legal liability for the publications of their users, whether under the civil or the criminal law. This goes to the issue at the heart of the debate — technology companies say they are platforms and not publishers so they cannot be held responsible for what their users do. Others say they are most definitely a publisher and provide the platform just as conventional publishers do,” Mr. Jaffa told Sputnik. 

​If this recommendation is accepted — the tech companies will become liable for material published on their websites and will have to significantly change procedures to remove content or face civil action. If the posting also contravenes a domestic criminal law such as harassment or incitement to racial hatred then it could mean criminal prosecution too, Mr. Jaffa explained. 

Under European and UK law, social media companies could argue they have no financial liability for the unlawful posts of those users, as they exercise no editorial control over their users’ comments. However, this protection is only available if they remove the material within a ‘reasonable’ period of receiving a request to remove it — which I suspect they might find difficult, the legal expert explained.

​Previously the British premier has said internet companies must remove terrorist material within two hours or face fines — a move in keeping with other leaders of the G7 countries, such as France and Germany.

“Will it curb offensive material? Your guess is as good as mine, I’m afraid. I suspect companies will try to comply if this becomes law or policy on a global or European scale. However, my personal view is this is unlikely to become US policy/law because of the 1st Amendment. And if it only became a UK law or policy, how would they react? Only they can answer that question, I think,” Mr. Jaffa told Sputnik. 

The report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which influences Mrs. May’s ethical standards, comes in the wake of an inquiry into intimidation experienced by parliamentary candidates during this year’s election campaign.

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